Monday, January 30, 2012

The Identity Facism of Modern Gay Liberation

For about a week now, much wailing and gnashing of teeth and lamenting of the faithful has been had by those who view themselves as gay liberationists or activists over Cynthia's Nixon statment that sexuality was a choice for her.  Despite affirming that this may not be the choice for everybody, she felt this was true for her. 
Oh, the uproar.  Such vitriol is usually reserved for those who equate gay people with pedophiles and Nazis.  The nasty comments across the web have come fast and furious.  Much of it has been incredibly malicious, sexist, hateful, and biphobic (i.e., fearful of bisexuals)   It's extremely clear that many people are deeply invested in the narrative that sexuality is innate, biological, immutable.

I understand why people may feel that way.  It seems that if we can prove that sexuality is as predetermined as race, then we have a iron clad argument agains discrimination.  Moreover, many people likely feel that they experience some kind of primal, out of their control attraction or urge to men or women. But, there's a lot wrong with these assumptions, which usually go unexamined.  And, from the look of things, people don't seem very inclined toward thinking too deeply about them.

It's probably never a good way to start off an essay by referring you to better done essays, but Scott Long's excellent blog post really is must-reading on this topic, as is his follow up: "Frots, g0ys, and other options."  While I was swilling this around in my mind, he said it first and certainly better than I have or am going to here.  Long provides a great overview of Foucaultian thought on sexuality, troubles quite accessibly and articulately current notions of sexuality as put forth by the mainstream lesbian and gay movement, and rightfully takes the modern "liberation" movement to task.  I would also recommend Frank Bruni's New York Times essay.  Bruni lays out the research that's been done so far on sexual orientation and shows that not only is it conclusive, but persuasively argues (along lines similar to Long) that it's unnecessary for equality.

I will re-emphasize some of the thoughts expressed in those essays and add a couple of my own.

First, it's ridiculous to accuse Nixon of using politically harmful language.  With or without Nixon's statements, anti-gay organizations are going to continue to use whatever language they find helpful to their cause.  They have come up with their own harmful language on their own prior to Nixon and they will and would have continued to do so without her statements.  Her claim is no more harmful than the dozens if not hundreds of testimonies that being gay is innate is helpful.

Long briefly mentions that the race analogy itself is slippery ground.  Race, like sexuality and gender, is a social construction: there is nothing inherently biological about race.  Humans create race based on physical appearances and then imbue that construction with all kinds of meanings that often have nothing to do with those physical appearances and everything to do with the life circumstances people find themselves in because they are categorized as being a certain race.  Nella Larsen's novella Passing deals with the uncertainty of race and sexuality.

The highly sexist nature of many comments made disturbs me.  I've seen repeated in more than one forum some iteration of "women can fake it, men can't" or "women's sexuality is different from men's."  The first statment presumes that because women can "fake" it (i.e., don't have highly noticeable erections), they, for some reason, will or would.  It also presumes that men couldn't manage to arouse themselves through some fantasy life, but that's far less troubling than the implication that women, lacking physical signs (perhaps these people don't know what to look for as signs of female arousal?) women will just willy-nilly choose to go after whatever is available.  Usually that rhetoric is deployed against men, but presumably because people don't like Nixon's statement, that charge can now be levied against women.  It also ignores the fact that men who have sex with men (whether gay-identified or not) frequently have had no problem getting it up with women at some point in their life or that they manage to do so in their marriages, even when they prefer sexual contact with men, but stay in marriages because of societal pressures. 

The second statement supposes some kind of essential, innate difference between men and women.  I'll first mention that those pushing this line are reifying strict gender binaries.  These people are usually speaking in terms of "plumbing," to use their so charming words.  Yet, gender is more than plumbing and not everyone for that matter has distinct sex organs.  How do we configure trans-desire?  These people cannot account for the complexities of desire and identity.  Even with cis-gendered people, men and women may be socialized differently, but a panoply of sexual desires and behaviors exist that cannot nor should not be easily labelled.  To say otherwise is to be reductionistic about both women and men. 

At minimum it is easy enough to understand that among men and women, gay, straight, bi, whatever, some prefer vanilla, some kink, and some everything in between.  It's never just about attraction to another person of the same or opposite sex.  It's about attractions to certain people of certain sexes, it's about attraction to certain gender performatives (some people like hyper-masculine or buth while others prefer more femme), it's about certain ages, it's about certain body parts (it's more than just about genitals), it's about certain practices (oral, anal, vaginal, frottage, mutual masturbation, trapezes), it's about numbers (by oneself, with another, with three, with a group) and so on.  No matter how much one wants to boil desire down to "I can't help it," the fact is you can and you do.  These things often change with age and with experiences.

Foucault famously asserted that the homosexual was a medical-juridical-psychiatric term used to make known certain people.  It both constrained and enabled people to speak as a certain identity.  Prior to the invention of this word in the late 1800's, there was no such thing as a homosexual identity.  In an interview, Foucault stated that he thought the word gay had certain interesting possibilities to allow for political action, movement, and speech.  Now, sadly, it's being used as a way to limit speech and identity, and ends up working against any true progressive politics for queers; clearly no longer a tool of liberation, gay has become a tool of identity facism.  


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